One effect of medical conditions that affect the pituitary gland or the hypothalamus may be reduced empathy, a scientific conference has heard. The evidence for this is preliminary and no research has been done on whether supplements can help, but the authors are keen to explore further.
Oxytocin has been widely hailed as the “love hormone”, although the nickname understates the complexity of its role. The molecule has been found to play a part in building trust and even the capacity to meet others' gaze, as well as familial and romantic love. Similar effects are seen in animals. Previous studies have shown that administering oxytocin can induce a range of beneficial behaviors, including healthier eating.
So it's surprising there hasn't already been plenty of research into whether people with conditions that interfere with oxytocin release experience reduced empathy. Yet after presenting her work at the annual conference of the Society for Endocrinology in Brighton, UK, University of Cardiff student Katie Daughters said in a statement: "This is the first study which looks at low oxytocin as a result of medical, as opposed to psychological, disorders.”
Daughters compared 20 people with cranial diabetes insipidus (CDI), which damages the hypothalamus, 15 people with hypopituitarism and 20 healthy controls. Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus, which also produces other hormones known to be reduced in people with CDI. The pituitary gland does not make oxytocin, but acts as a storehouse for what the hypothalamus produces, releasing it when needed. Hypopituitarism interferes with the pituitary gland's capacity to release the hormones it holds.
The sample size was small, and the work has yet to be published, forming the basis of Daughter's recently submitted PhD thesis. Nevertheless, Daughters' findings, that people with either CDI or hypothalamus were less able than controls to recognize facial expressions or interpret people's emotions in their eyes, supports the theory that both conditions reduce empathy. Moreover, the levels of oxytocin measured for study participants proved a good predictor of how they would perform on the facial expressions task.
The average age of the participants was 46, and many of those with CDI acquired it through surgery, rather than having diminished oxytocin levels from birth.
As Daughters noted, a lack of empathy can affect psychological well-being. The idea of giving oxytocin supplements to children with autism has been widely proposed, but studies suggest the benefits are small and inconsistent, and there is no research on adults.
Oxytocin research has been limited by the lack of methods to block the hormone within the brain, along with challenges in measuring its abundance. Earlier this year a paper reported that we have been drastically underestimating the amount of oxytocin in blood plasma, impeding research in the area.